Detroit Portait Series

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Featured Poet Bios

Each of the poets and publishers depicted in the series have made a significant contribution to the city of Detroit, through the establishment of independent writing presses, outreach organizations, and their role as educators ­­ in an academic setting and beyond. The ultimate installation site of these portraits, across from Wayne State University, is intended to connect the significant role that the university has played in the scholarship of many of these writers.Below are the brief bios of only a handful of the feautured artists.More information on the Detroit Portait Series.

Bill Harris b. 1943 (Anniston, Alabama)

Playwright, poet, critic, and novelist, Bill Harris, is a Professor of English at Wayne State University in Detroit. Formerly Production Coordinator for Jazzmobile, and the New Federal Theatre, both in New York.  His plays have had more than one hundred productions nationwide. His latest book Birth of a Notion; Or, The Half Ain’t Never Been Told, A Narrative Account with Entertaining Passages of the State of Minstrelsy & of America & the True Relation Thereof, is a critical look at black identity in American history and popular culture as told from a performative African American perspective. Focusing on the middle 18th century when minstrelsy was king, it is a hybrid combining prose, poetry, play script, and screenwriting techniques to signify on ideas of “blackness” and “whiteness” through various characters and voices. Stories About the Old Day, which starred the late jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, and Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone, with Denzel Washington and S. Epatha Merkerson as its leads, premiered at the New Federal Theatre in New York. Queen of Sheba, and BOO!  A Musical Fantasy had their debuts at the St. Louis Black Repertory Company.Harris has had two books of poetry published: The Ringmaster’s Array, poems honoring visual and musical artists, and Yardbird Suite: Side One, a collection about the life of jazz musician Charlie Parker, which won the 1997 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award. Booker T. & Them:  A Blues, published by Wayne State Press in 2012, is an examination in long poem form of the era of Booker T. Washington. He is currently working on three novels, one set in 1954, a second in 1854, and the third, the story of a young blind entertainer rising to fame during the 1940s and 50s. Harris has been awarded the Guggenheim Foundation Award and is a 2011 Kresge Arts in Detroit Eminent Artist.

Dudley Randall b. 1914 (Washington D.C.) d. 2000 (Southfield, MI)

An activist poet and poetry publisher from Detroit, Michigan, Randall founded the pioneering publishing company Broadside Press in 1965, which published many leading African-American writers, among them Melvin Tolson, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, Etheridge Knight, and Margaret Walker. Randall’s most famous poem is The Ballad of Birmingham, written in response to the 1963 bombing of the Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four girls were killed. Randall’s poetry is characterized by simplicity and realism. In 1981 Randall was named Poet Laureate of the City of Detroit by Mayor Coleman Young and in May 2001 the University of Detroit Mercy’s McNichols Campus Library was designated a national Literary Landmark by the Friends of Libraries — UDM’s Dudley Randall Center for Print Culture was named in his honor. The Dudley Randall Poetry Prize is awarded to a University of Detroit Mercy student each year.

Lolita Hernandez b. 1947 (Detroit, MI)

Lolita Hernandez, born and raised in Detroit, is the author of Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant (Coffee House Press), which won a 2005 PEN Beyond Margins Award. She has also authored two chapbook collections of poems: Quiet Battles (Wayne State University Writers Forum) and Snakecrossing (Ridgeway Press). After more than 33 years as a UAW member at General Motors, she now teaches in the Creative Writing Department of the University of Michigan Residential College. Her family hails from Trinidad & Tobago and St. Vincent in the Caribbean.

Melba Joyce Boyd b. 1950 (Detroit, MI)

Boyd is a celebrated author of 13 books, nine of which are collections of her poetry. Her last book, Death Dance of a Butterfly, received the 2013 Library of Michigan Notable Book Award for Poetry. She is the Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Wayne State University, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. She earned a Doctor of Arts in English from the U of M in 1979, and was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany for the 1983-84 academic year. She has held professorial positions at the University of Iowa, Ohio State University, and the U of M (Flint). She is the author of 65 essays on African American literature and culture, and is the editor of the African American Life Series at Wayne State University Press.Boyd was an assistant editor at Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press from 1972-77, which was the most successful publisher of black poetry during The Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. Boyd is the official biographer of Dudley Randall, and her book, Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press, received the 2005 Honor for Nonfiction from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Her edited collection, Roses and Revolutions: The Selected Writings of Dudley Randall, received several honors in 2010 including, The Independent Publishers Award for Poetry, The Library of Michigan Notable Book Award for Poetry — a Finalist for the NAACP Image Award for Poetry and The ForeWord Award for Literature. She is the writer, producer and director of the documentary film The Black Unicorn: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press, and co-producer of the documentary film, Star by Star: The Poetry and Publishing of Naomi Long Madgett.In 1997 Boyd wrote the official poem for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which is inscribed in bronze in the museum’s dedication plaque. Boyd’s poetry is often characterized by sharp, fragmented phrasing. Common themes include urban life and the social divides of race and class.

Mick Vranich b. 1946 (Wyandotte, MI) d. 2010 (Detroit, MI)

Cass Corridor poet, musician, anti-war activist.With an MA in English from Wayne State University, Radnik Pisar — one of Vranich’s numerous chap books, was published in 1983 by 2×4 Press in Detroit. The author bio on the last page reads, “At eighteen, he was a general laborer at Zug Island; at twenty, a scrapballer and hooker at Great Lakes Steel; later, a squaring shear operator at Ford Stamping Plant. Other jobs include driving 130,000 miles delivering car parts in San Francisco, where he wore out three trucks. His first book, Salad Surreal: Discernible by Distortion, appeared in 1971. Vranich presently lives in Detroit and makes his living as a carpenter.”Vranich lead the band K-9, with guitar and voicals, as well as The Word Band in the 1980s. He regularly released music collections, staged anti-war poetry readings, organized benefits for Leonard Peliter, and for the homeless in the city of Detroit.

Naomi Long Madgett b. 1923 (Norfolk, Virginia)

A poet, publisher, educator and mentor, Madgett is one of Detroit’s living legends. Daughter of a Baptist minister, Madgett spent her childhood in East Orange, New Jersey and began writing at an early age, publishing her first book of poetry at age 17, Songs to a Phantom Nightingale, a few days after graduating from high school.After moving to Detroit, Madgett worked for the Michigan Chronicle and taught English in the Detroit public school system. Her poem “Midway,” from her collection One and the Many, attracted wide attention as it portrayed black people’s struggles, and victories, in a time when racism was prevalent in the United States. In 1955, she graduated from Wayne State University with a M.Ed. In the 1960s, Madgett taught the first black literary course in the Detroit public school system. In 1968, she became a teacher in creative writing and black literature at Eastern Michigan University, where she taught until her retirement in 1984.In 1972, Madgett founded the Lotus Press to champion the literary accomplishments of under-recognized minority writers. Her efforts for fairer representation of literature by African Americans in high school and college textbooks inspired the Detroit Public Schools to make her book, Octavia and Other Poems, required reading in all public high schools in Detroit. Madgett is a 2012 Kresge Eminent Artist.

Philip Levine b. 1928 (Detroit, MI) d. 2015 (Fresno, California)

A Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet best known for his poems about working-class Detroit. Levine’s working experience lent his poetry a profound skepticism in regard to conventional American ideals. In his first two books, On the Edge (1963) and Not This Pig (1968), the poetry dwells on those who suddenly become aware that they are trapped in some murderous processes not of their own making. In 1968, Levine signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.Levine taught for more than thirty years in the English department of California State University (Fresno) with numerous other teaching positions. He was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012. His familial, social, and economic world of twentieth century Detroit is one of the major subjects of Levine’s life work. His portraits of working class Americans and continuous examination of Jewish immigrant inheritance (both based on real life and described through fictional characters) has left a testimony to American life in the mid-20th century.

Robert Hayden b. 1913 (Detroit, MI) d. 1980 (Ann Arbor, MI)

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey, Hayden was raised in the poor neighborhood in Detroit called Paradise Valley. He had an emotionally tumultuous childhood and was shuttled between the home of his parents and that of a foster family, who lived next door. Because of impaired vision, he was unable to participate in sports, but was able to spend his time reading. In 1932, he graduated from high school and, with the help of a scholarship, attended Detroit City College (later Wayne State). Hayden published his first book of poems, Heart-Shape in the Dust, in 1940, at the age of 27. He enrolled in a graduate English literature program at the University of Michigan, where he studied with W. H. Auden. His poetry gained international recognition in the 1960s when he was awarded the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966 for his book Ballad of Remembrance.Explaining the trajectory of Hayden’s career, the poet William Meredith wrote: “Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. There is scarcely a line of his which is not identifiable as an experience of black America, but he would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity.” In 1975, Hayden received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and in 1976, he became the first black American to be appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, the Poet Laureate.

Sixto Rodriguez b. 1942 (Detroit, MI)

Songwriter and poet from working-class parents in Detroit, Rodriguez’s father immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1920s, joining a large wave of Mexicans who came to the midwest to work in Detroit’s industries. In many of his songs, Rodriguez takes a political stance on the difficulties that faced the inner city poor.Rodriguez earned a Bachelor of Philosophy from Wayne State University’s Monteith College in 1981. In the 1970s Rodriguez recorded several albums, and continued to live and work in Detroit in demolition and production line work, always earning a low income. He remained politically active and motivated to improve the lives of the city’s working-class inhabitants and in 1989 registered to run for the city council.Unknown to Rodriguez, his recorded albums became extremely successful and influential in South Africa, used as anthems in the opposition to apartheid. According to the film-makers of the 2012 documentary about him, Searching for Sugar Man, determined South African fans managed to find and contact Rodriguez, which led to an unexpected revival of his musical career. On May 9, 2013, Rodriguez received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from his alma mater, Wayne State University (WSU), in Detroit. Rodriguez continues to live in Detroit’s historic Woodbridge neighborhood in a house he bought for $50 in the 1970s.

Terry Blackhawk b. 1945 (Glendale, California)

Terry Blackhawk is the author of several collections of poetry including The Light Between (Wayne State University Press, 2012) and Escape Artist (BkMk Press, 2003), which received the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Her most recent work is included in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Collagist, Verse Daily, Poetry Daily and Nimrod International Journal, which awarded her the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize. In 1995, while teaching creative writing for Detroit Public Schools, she founded Inside Out Literary Arts Project, a nonprofit writers-in-schools program. Inside Out serves more than 5,000 children and youth in classrooms and communities throughout Detroit and has twice been honored by the White House.